Jen Waite is the author of the new book A Beautiful, Terrible Thing: A Memoir of Marriage and Betrayal, which focuses on her relationship with her ex-husband. She lives in Maine.
Q: Why did you decide to write a memoir about your experiences with your ex-husband, and what was it like to write about such a difficult time in your life?
A: I did not sit down to write a memoir. It wasn’t a planned, purposeful endeavor. I was writing close to everything when it was happening. It was because my mom and another character in the book, who’s “Nat” in the book, told me you need to start writing and move it out of your body.
The reason for writing it at the time, I didn’t really know. In hindsight, I figured out that I tried to understand what was happening and tried to process it. I didn’t write to help other people, but to figure out what was happening in my own life…
It was entirely therapeutic, and then it quickly turned into, I have a lot of pages, and a plot, and I realized it could be something more than just for myself.
There were scenes where it was very painful and I was releasing a lot of emotion. There were scenes where I had to force myself to write. But most of it, I felt that I had to. It was almost as if every sentence had already formed in my head. It took two and a half to three months to write. It just kind of came.
Q: How was the book’s title chosen, and what does it signify for you?
A: That title was not my original title. It was "Human Heroin." But it would have been too confusing. We were brainstorming titles and my editor came up with ["A Beautiful, Terrible Thing"]. I’m really glad now. It’s more appealing to the demographic the book resonates with, mostly women, who have been in these relationships.
The “beautiful, terrible thing” for me is not the relationship…but the fact that I went through this and came out so much stronger. As cheesy as it sounds, I’m so much better a person. And it goes without saying, my daughter is the most beautiful thing that came out of it. It’s what I learned, and it’s the truth.
Q: The book is organized primarily into chapters focusing on before and after you found out about your husband’s affair. How did you decide on the structure of the book?
A: I sat down that first day and it sounds like I’m lying, but it happened organically. I knew exactly what I was going to start with. In my head was a timeline. Certain events were highlighted that I knew would be the “before” and the “after.”
In hindsight, I had to juxtapose falling-in-love moments with the after moments to find out what went wrong.
And it’s important for the reader to go along on the journey in dual time as well. It felt like an amazing beginning and the end was so horrific—what I’m hoping was that people would almost see through my eyes that I couldn’t even believe it myself. People need to experience the before and after at the same time.
Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book?
A: I hope for anyone who’s been in a relationship with a toxic person, not necessarily a psychopath but any unhealthy relationship, I hope they feel validated. A lot of people walk away thinking they’re crazy.
And I hope people who haven’t might, A, take the warning signs and B, understand the psyche of a person in that relationship, why it isn’t easy to extricate yourself. People think, Oh, just leave. I’m hoping it will be a multiple purpose.
A few therapists have contacted me and said it changed how they were treating their patients now, [after having] a glimpse into a person in that relationship.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I haven’t started writing a book. I’m doing a lot of articles that tag along with the memoir; my publisher has contacted me about media outlets that are interested.
I’m working in Portland, Maine, for an insurance company. It’s a 9-to-5 job and I’m happy there.
At the end of the memoir, I was ready to become a therapist. I’m still excited, but I’ve taken a pause to make sure that’s something I want to do, and with a toddler and a book coming out…
I want it to be a thoughtful decision, not one born out of trauma.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: The reactions have been all over the board. I learned not to read reviews—the good ones are awesome; the bad ones are so painful. The word “psychopath” is a very visceral, intense word. It’s interesting that people are so fixated on, Is he or isn’t he? That is missing the point, but I get it because I did use that word.
I want people to know there’s more than whether he is or isn’t a psychopath, but it’s being in a toxic relationship, what drew me to him, owning that part of me. I hope it gives other women a direction about where to go. What set me free was looking inward at my own self, doing that scary work about my own vulnerabilities.
It is click-baity that way [the idea of a psychopath], but it’s so much more about forming boundaries, recognizing your own self-worth, finding yourself. For me, it was to find the person I really always was, and a lot got covered up by everything else that was happening in my life. It’s about getting back to the root of who we are and where our power lies.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb